Sometimes people can do some pretty extreme things when they feel passionate about something.
During the past week I came across the remarkable story of James Francis from California, who embarked on what would strike most people as a little crazy or extreme.
It all began in 1971 when two oil tankers collided near the Golden Gate Bridge just outside San Francisco Bay which resulted in a devastating oil spill. When James Francis saw the devastation which was left, with oil soaked birds washing up on the shore, it affected him so deeply that he took a vow that day, to give up using motorised transport. Some of his friends probably imagined this would be just a passing phase.
But his decision to give up using motorised transport was not simply a passing phase. It was obviously borne of a deep sense of conviction and passion, because he maintained this vow for a total of 22 years. But in addition to his vow to give up motorised transport a few months later, he also took a vow of silence which he ended up keeping for a total of 17 years. He tells how on his 27th birthday, tired of the constant arguments with friends about how one person walking would make any difference in the world, he stunned his friends and himself, by taking a vow of silence.
Initially it was only meant to last one day, but the experience of taking a vow of silence that day made such an impact on him that he ended up keeping that vow of silence for a total of 17 years.
He said that during that first day of chosen silence, he came to a profound realisation that for most of his life up until that point he hadn’t been properly listening to other people. He realised that he was in the habit of hearing someone only long enough to think he knew what they were going to say, and then he would stop listening and beginning thinking in his head about what he was going to say back to them. He also realised on that day that had been operating from the assumption that other people were wrong and he was correct, and as a result he realised that he had also stopped learning.
And so with this realisation, he made a further decision to extend his vow of silence, a vow that he would keep for a total of 17 years.
In the Bible, you read quite a few crazy stories about Old Testament prophets who did some pretty extreme and seemingly crazy things that make James Francis sound not quite so crazy.
In Isaiah 20, we read of how the prophet Isaiah stripped off all his clothes and went about naked in order to communicate a prophetic message to the people of Israel.
And then there is the prophet Hosea, who married a prostitute in order to communicate to the people of Israel that God loved them despite their religious unfaithfulness.
And then there is the case of the prophet Ezekiel whose ministry initially didn’t involve speaking because according to chapter 3 God had rendered him mute. Instead for a total of 780 days, he acted out a siege of the city of Jerusalem that he predicted was coming. He drew a picture of Jerusalem on a clay tablet, built a ramp against it and put battering rams around it, and then lay on his one side facing it for 390 days. When the 390 days were up, Ezekiel then rolled over and repeated the whole exercise in the opposite direction for a further 390 days. And so for just over two years and one month, according to Ezekiel chapter 4, this is how the prophet Ezekiel got his day in, lying on his side in the public square facing an image of the city of Jerusalem under siege! It almost makes James Francis sound a little tame.
Reading about James Francis and how his vow of silence made him realise that for most of his life he had not truly been listening to other people, it raised the question for me: How good are we as listeners? Do we have the same tendency. Do we only listen to people long enough to start thinking what we are going to say in return? Do we truly listen to each other.
According to the book of Ezekiel, God warned Ezekiel that the people of Jerusalem were not good listeners, that Ezekiel would speak to them, but they would not listen.
This is a theme that comes up again and again in the Bible, the sense that people are not good listeners. In Isaiah 9, God warns the prophet Isaiah of the same truth, saying “They will be “ever hearing, but never understanding...ever seeing, but never perceiving.”
Jesus seems to have faced a similar problem. When asked by his disciples why he taught in parables, he quotes from Isaiah in his reply as he says to his disciples: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear.’ ...For this people’s heart has grown callous; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” (Matthew 13:13ff)
These passages suggest that learning to become good listeners is not just a good social skill to have, but in fact is necessary in our growth towards human maturity.
We see the same truth in the opening verses of Proverbs. In Proverbs chapter one, within the space of the first eight verses, the instruction to listen happens twice. The first 7 verses of Proverbs are a kind of an introduction to the whole of the rest of the book and the instruction to listen is key! In verse 5 we read these words:
“Let the wise listen and add to their learning,”
And then in verse 8, the first verse of the first major section of Proverbs begins with the simple word “Listen”.
Verse 8 reads: Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
What the book of Proverbs suggests is that the path to true wisdom, and the path to true spiritual maturity is through listening.
Getting back to James Francis: What he learned in taking a one-day vow of silence, was firstly that he was not a good listener, and that secondly, the first step to becoming a good listener, to really listen to and hear another person, is simply to stop talking. To truly listen to another person is to give them space to speak until they are finished. And also enough space to pause and to collect their thoughts if they need to in order to finish saying whatever it is they need to. It means is that if we find ourselves constantly interrupting other people when they are speaking, or redirecting the conversation, or changing the topic, moving the conversation on or thinking in our head the next thing we are going to say, then we are no longer truly listening.
As one reads the Gospel stories of Jesus, One gets the sense that Jesus must have been a really good listener. It was one of the ways people must have felt loved and affirmed in his presence, for to truly listen to another person is in fact one of the primary acts of human love. To not listen, is in effect to ignore another person. Richard Moss writes that “The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”
For whatever reason, James Francis, after 17 years decided to give up his vow of silence. A few years later he also gave up his vow not to use motorised vehicles. But having given up his vow of silence, he writes that he continues to practice silence each day. Each morning, as a practice, he sits in silence for 30 minutes.
Apart from learning to stop talking, practicing some form of silence, even as little as 5 or 10 minutes, as a regular routine is one way in which we can practice becoming better listeners. If we can be silent with ourselves for short periods, without external stimulation and without distraction, then we will more easily learn to be silent before other people and therefore better able to listen to them. And in doing so, also better able to love them. You don’t need to take a vow of silence for 17 years in order to learn to listen more deeply.
I close with a verse from James 1:19
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
May God bless you as you hear the invitation to a life of deeper listening.